Authors: Sloane Meyers
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Polar Bear, #Werebear, #Adult, #Erotic, #Shifter, #Mate, #Sexy, #Forever Love, #Ice Bear Shifters, #Grandmother, #Co-Worker, #Clan, #Girl Next-Door, #Dishonor Wishes, #Appealing, #Supernatural, #Escaping Somewhere, #Life Changes, #Attraction, #Plans, #Chance
Two hours later, James sat alone in his cabin, heaping giant spoonfuls of steaming chili into his mouth. Chili was his favorite food, and, normally, he relished a good bowl of it. But today, his mind was too preoccupied with other things to notice the flavor of his food.
James needed to find some direction for his life. Ever since his clan had been wiped out by the Blizzards, he had felt like he was floundering. He loved the Northern Lights Clan, but he often felt claustrophobic. He wasn’t used to lying low and worrying about humans discovering him. And he wasn’t used to sitting in one place, seeing the same four walls of the same cabin day after day. His young bear longed to find adventures. James often dreamed of picking up and moving somewhere new. He’d heard tales of shifter clans in Montana that ruled the wide open spaces there. And he’d heard of shifter clans in Texas that embraced the legacy of the Wild West. He’d fantasized about trying to join a clan somewhere far away like that. Somewhere that no one knew his past, or the painful legacy of death that the Blizzards had left in their wake.
But two things stood in the way of James’ dreams of a new life. First, he did truly love the Northern Lights Clan. Although, in James’ opinion, Neal could be a bit paranoid, he was a caring and selfless alpha. And the rest of the clan was kind to James, bringing a great deal of joy and fun into his life. James had learned so many things from the clan members. Eric had taught him about ice-fishing. Alan let him read and critique drafts of the novels he wrote. Tyler, a personal trainer, helped James develop a workout routine. And Ryker, who had developed a passion for photography, had started teaching James about different types of cameras.
The other obstacle standing in the way of James’ leaving was his lack of money. Although, thanks to the kindness of his new clan, James had plenty of food and a warm place to live, he didn’t have much extra cash. His old clan hadn’t had much in the way of resources, and the Blizzards had pillaged the small amount of cash there had been. James couldn’t exactly ask the Northern Lights Clan to fund his need to get out and explore.
James spooned another bite of chili into his mouth, and stared at the painting on his dining room wall without really seeing it. When it came down to it, he didn’t think he could permanently leave the Arctic, anyway. He was, after all, a polar bear. But maybe he should take a vacation. He could go somewhere else for a while, and get the restless urge to move around out of his system.
James frowned. Before he could travel, he’d have to get a job and make some money. It wasn’t that James didn’t want to work—he just wasn’t sure what kind of job to take. He’d thought several times over the last year about finding a way to contribute to his own finances and the clan’s well-being. He’d even applied for a bartending job and a few retail positions, but the managers had never called him back. James didn’t have much in the way of formal work experience, and he suspected that had been the reason for the lack of response to his job applications. Unsure of what to do next, James had given up on the idea of working. He spent his free time helping to watch the clan’s cubs, or roaming around the Arctic tundra.
But now, James wasn’t sure he felt comfortable out on the tundra. And maybe the close call he’d had today with a human had been just the push he needed to get himself back on the job market. He could find a job, throw himself into it, and save some money. That would be a more productive use of his time than gallivanting around with no purpose. And, once he had some work experience established, he could travel. He would love to see Montana in person. Maybe a vacation there would help him get the restlessness worked out of his system.
James wasn’t sure where to start with his job search, so he decided to go ask one of the older, wiser clan members for advice. Ryker had worked for a retail superstore for several years, so James decided to seek help from him first. Maybe Ryker could even put in a good word for James with the manager of the superstore and help him get a job.
James trudged over to Ryker’s cabin, and before he got close enough to knock on the door, he heard the shrieks and laughter of children floating out to him. James smiled. It sounded like all of the clan’s cubs were over at Ryker’s cabin at the moment. James knocked, and Kenzie, Ryker’s lifemate, answered the door. As soon as she opened it, squeals of delight rang out from the little ones.
“Uncle James!” Calum yelled, hopping from his chair and running toward James. Hope followed quickly behind him, and then the triplets came toddling after the two older cubs. James grinned and kissed the tops of all five little heads as they clamored to get closer to him. He could never leave this place permanently. He would miss moments like this too much.
“Hi, everyone. What are you all up to today?”
“We make crafts! We make crafts!” Hope said proudly, pointing to the table, where several pieces of construction paper had been turned into works of macaroni art. On the floor, several more pieces of paper lay, and had been decorated by the triplets with scribbles from oversized crayons.
“How pretty!” James said, giving Hope’s head another kiss. “You’ve made some very nice crafts.”
Hope beamed and bounced back to the table, inspired by James’ praise to start on a new macaroni design. Kenzie herded Calum and the triplets back to their respective art stations, and then looked over at James while shaking her head.
“This is the first time in a while that I’ve watched all five of them by myself,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a lot more exhausting now that the younger ones are walking. Thankfully, the crayons have been keeping them reasonably well-entertained. Please tell me you came over here to help me.”
James laughed. “I actually came to talk to Ryker, but I’m happy to stay for a while and help you. It looks like you’ve got your hands very full.”
Kenzie nodded as she grabbed Alyssa, who was making a beeline for the couch with a black crayon. “Yup, full hands,” she said. “But full in the best possible way. Ryker’s at work for a few more hours. Is there anything I can help you with?”
James shrugged. Kenzie worked as a veterinarian, and James wasn’t sure if she would have any connections for jobs that he might be qualified to do, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.
“I actually came to see if Ryker had any ideas on where I might find a job. But I’m open to advice from anyone, so if you know of something, I’m all ears.”
Kenzie furrowed her brow. “Let me think,” she said. Moments later, a plastic container of macaroni crashed onto the floor.
“Uh-oh,” Calum’s little voice said, as he stared down at the flood of macaroni pieces that now covered the floor.
James laughed as he moved to help clean up the mess. “I guess thinking can be a little difficult to do in this environment,” he said to Kenzie.
“Tell me about it,” Kenzie said, once again redirecting Alyssa away from the couch. “But, actually, I did have one of my clients last week mention during her dog’s vaccination appointment that Glacier Point Airlines is hiring seasonal customer service agents. She’s a manager for the airline. You know it gets super busy here during the summer, with all the tourists. I guess they need some extra help.”
James mind started racing. He wondered if working for the airline might earn some discounts on airfare. That would be a huge boost to his travel goals.
“Do you know what I’d have to do to apply?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Kenzie said. “Probably just fill out an application. I think they do all of that online now. And I would imagine she’d have you come in and do a short interview. But I’m sure you can ace that. You just have to act normal and friendly. And I can put in a good word for you. She really likes me, so I’m sure if I vouch for you she can move your application to the top of the pile.”
“Really? Thank you so much,” James said. “That would be awesome. I really want to get a job.”
“Of course, my pleasure,” Kenzie said, as she caught Hope just before she tumbled headfirst off her chair. “You’ve helped me so much with the kids. You deserve the chance to have a good job.”
James smiled as he picked up Elliot, who had toddled over to him and stretched up his little arms wanting to be held. For the first time in a long time, he felt truly excited about something. He said a silent prayer that the job would work out.
* * *
Two days later, James found himself sitting outside the office of Glacier Point Airline’s customer service manager. James was wearing a suit that Ryker had helped him purchase for the occasion, and he felt uncomfortable and awkward in the constricting material. He had tried to argue with Ryker that no one wore suits to interviews for customer service jobs these days, but Ryker wouldn’t hear of it.
“Listen, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed for an interview. You’ll be sure to make a good impression that way,” Ryker had said.
James had finally acquiesced, and now he sat nervously in a stiff chair, waiting for his chance to attempt to impress the manager. Several other applicants sat in the room, silently staring down at their hand or the floor. Apparently, this job was a popular one. James bit his lip and tried to keep his demeanor calm. Kenzie had put in a good word for him. Surely, that counted for something? And only one other applicant was wearing a suit, so hopefully Ryker’s prediction that the suit would help him would prove to be correct.
James could feel the defined muscles of his abs pressing against the stiff material of his starched dress shirt. He had been working out with Tyler almost every day, trying to stave off the boredom and restlessness he felt. He wasn’t sure if the workouts had helped him mentally, but he definitely had a killer set of abs to show for his effort. Too bad the customer service job didn’t require much in the way of physical abilities, James thought. Maybe he should be applying for a baggage handler position.
His wandering thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt opening of the office door. The sound rang out startlingly loud in the quiet room, and James couldn’t help but stare as he watched a tall, dark-haired woman with generous, sultry curves leaving the office. Her skin was a deep olive color, and her hair hung in long, sleek waves around her shoulders. She wore a well-tailored navy skirt suit, and James couldn’t stop himself from admiring her legs, which looked perfectly smooth in the pair of hose she was wearing. James wasn’t the only one gawking. Almost every man in the room had turned to watch the beautiful woman as she confidently strode across the room. James was about to turn his attention back to the office door when he accidentally caught the woman’s eyes.
He found his gaze locked with the same dancing blue eyes that he had seen out on the tundra a few days earlier. The woman stopped short as well, and furrowed her brow in his direction for a moment, as if trying to place him. Then her eyes lit up as a light bulb seemingly went off in her mind. She walked over to him with a smile and extended her hand.
“Well, well,” she said. “We meet again. I’m Alexis. Alexis Fletcher. Nice to see you’re just as handsome in a suit as you are out on the tundra.”
She winked at him, and James dumbly shook her hand, trying to figure out how she could possibly recognize him even though she had only ever seen him as a giant polar bear.
She must have read his mind, because she gave him another wink.
“It’s the eyes,” she said. “They look exactly the same in here as they did out there. I’d recognize them anywhere.”
Then she turned and headed for the exit, giving James a small wave as he tried to keep his composure.
“Well, shit,” he said.
Moments later, the manager stepped out of the office with a clipboard in her hand.
“James Tanner?” she said, looking expectantly around the room.
James sighed and stood up. He wasn’t sure how he was going to focus on this interview now, but he had to try.
As it turned out, the interview was much easier than James had expected. The manager had several dogs, all of whom she took to Kenzie for veterinary care. The manager loved Kenzie, and was eager to do her a favor. James got the feeling that as long as he didn’t act like a complete weirdo, he would be offered a job. The only downside to the job was that it was seasonal, so it didn’t come with benefits like discounted flights, as James had hoped. The manager did tell him, however, that she believed in a strict meritocracy. Work hard enough, and he might be rewarded with a permanent position at the end of the summer. At the very least, he could earn a guaranteed spot during next year’s tourist season. James determined to show the manager that he was irreplaceable. He would spend the summer working his ass off at the airport.
Summer in Glacier Point, while it didn’t bring sweltering temperatures, did bring a break from the snow and ice that covered the landscape for the majority of the year. It also brought the “midnight sun.” From mid-May to the beginning of August, the sun didn’t set at all. During this time, tourists flooded Glacier Point, eager to experience this phenomenon and earn the bragging rights that came with seeing the sun high in the sky in the middle of the night. During the winter, Glacier Point paid for those months of sunshine when it experienced over sixty days of constant darkness. By then, however, the tourists were long gone.
Most people in Glacier Point had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. On the one hand, they breathed much needed life into the northern Alaskan economy. They were happy to buy food, souvenirs, and tundra tours. But, on the other hand, they disrupted the peaceful quiet that spread across the town during the rest of the year. For his part, James loved the tourists. They brought stories of faraway places and lands, and they were usually in good spirits and willing to spring for a round or two from the bar. It was a good thing he liked them, too, since he would soon be dealing with them at their worst.
His first few days involved hours of boring, silly training videos. But on the third day, he started shadowing an experienced customer service agent at the ticket counter. By the end of the day, James was reeling from shock at how rude some of the customers had been. He understood that they were tired and crabby, and just wanted to get home or change their flight, or something along those lines. But the level to which they took their frustrations out on the agents astounded James. No matter how kindly the employee James was shadowing tried to treat them, most of the customers took everything personally—and responded with personal attacks.
By the beginning of the next week, when James was slated to begin working on his own, he was terrified. Fear was a strange feeling for James. He hid a large polar bear inside of him, and wasn’t used to feeling afraid of much. But the anger of some of the airline customers was something truly frightening to behold. Luckily for James, his first day out of training passed without any serious issues. Most of the customers he helped had problems that were easily solvable, and so they left his counter in a good mood. At the end of his shift, James left the airport feeling exhausted, but happy. It felt good to put in a hard day’s work. Best of all, he had been too busy to spend time thinking about anything other than work. As he suspected, working a full time job was going to help him quiet his constantly churning thoughts.
The next day, James showed up to work feeling energized, with a spring in his step. He smiled as he took a sip from his to-go cup of coffee. This gig was turning out to be halfway decent. His smile froze on his lips, however, when he saw a familiar face behind the customer service counter. Alexis stood next to a veteran agent, nodding her head at whatever instructions he was giving her. Her hair was pulled back into a high, tight bun, and she looked just as lovely as ever. James felt his bear stirring within him at the sight of her, but he forced himself to breathe evenly.
“Down, bear,” he said. “I have a feeling this one is nothing but trouble.”
Alexis glanced up at him, and her face broke into an impish grin. James felt a strange mixture of annoyance and yearning at the sight of her smile. Beauty radiated from her. It wasn’t just her perfect skin or luscious curves. There was something deeper about her that drew him in. Her smile held a certain irresistible, happy energy. She waved, and her instructor looked up. It was the same guy who James had shadowed during his training.
“You know him?” James heard him ask.
Alexis nodded. “We met when we were both interviewing for the job.”
“He’s a good guy. Smart as a whip. If you ever get stuck, ask him. I bet he’ll know the answer,” the instructor said, looking up and giving James a wink.
James felt his chest swelling with pride at the unsolicited praise. Somehow, the fact that the words of commendation were said to Alexis made James feel even prouder. Alexis simply nodded at the instructor’s words, never changing the amused expression on her face. Then she went back to studying whatever screen was currently pulled up on the computer.
James went to clock in, and then took his post at the customer service counter. His good luck from the day before seemed to have run out, because his first customer was an irate old man whose bag had been lost on the flight to Glacier Point. The man had flown all the way from New York City, and after fifteen hours of travel to get to the midnight sun, his disposition was anything but sunny. No matter what James tried to say, he couldn’t get more than two words out before the man started yelling at him about how incompetent he was. After spending thirty minutes trying to calm him down, James was finally able to convince the man to head to his hotel, telling him that the airline would let him know as soon as his bag was found. In the meantime, he was given a voucher to purchase clothes and toiletries.
James rubbed his temples as the man stormed off toward the airport’s exit. Just when he thought he finally had a moment to catch his breath, he heard laughing. Looking up in annoyance, he saw Alexis watching him from the next computer over.
“Looks like someone could have used some help from his inner bear,” Alexis said between chuckles.
James glared at Alexis. Even her overwhelming beauty wasn’t enough to keep down the feelings of annoyance bubbling up inside of him right now.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” James said.
Alexis kept laughing. “You can deny it all you want, buddy. I know exactly who and what you are.”
James narrowed his eyes at her. “What’s your deal, anyway?”
“My deal? I don’t have a deal. I’m just here to work and earn money, same as you.”
“Why do you keep mentioning…you know…what I am. And how do you even know?”
Alexis smiled over at him. “Oh, so you admit it now?” she asked.
“I didn’t admit anything,” James said angrily and turned back to his computer. He started hitting keys, pretending to be working even though he didn’t currently have any work to finish up.
A few moments later, he felt a rush of excitement as Alexis sidled up to him. He tried to concentrate on something other than the heady orange-vanilla scent of her hair.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make things harder for you. I really am just here to make some money. And I have nothing against shifters. I know a lot about them thanks to my grandma. Don’t worry. I’m not going to cause any trouble or try to expose you.”
James glared at her, but his eyes softened somewhat. Up close, her eyes sparkled even more.
“How does your grandma know about shifters?” James asked, his first acknowledgement to Alexis that her insistence on his being different was not misplaced.
“Everyone in my family knows about them. I come from an Inupiat tribe. We’re native Alaskans, and have lived in harmony with the wildlife of this region for centuries. My people have had to share northern Alaska with shifter clans for a very long time. Most of the natives who are my age have forgotten about shifters. Your clans are dying out, as are our tribes. But there are those among us, the older ones like my grandma, who remember and try to teach the younger generations about the supernatural beings that live among us.”
“There’s nothing supernatural about shifters,” James said. It’s a genetic mutation.
Alexis laughed. “My grandma would disagree with you. Legend has it that shifters are bears who were touched by a special spiritual essence, and granted the ability to traverse between the animal and human world. They are special creatures, with magical abilities and the power to change the lives of those they come in contact with.”
James rolled his eyes. “That all sounds nice,” he said. “But it’s a bunch of baloney. Shifting is just a genetic mutation, like I said. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s the ability to transform one physical form into another. Kind of like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, except it happens faster and the transformation can go both ways. But it’s the same concept. It’s just a simple, physical transformation.”
“If you say so,” Alexis said, although her tone made it obvious that she didn’t believe a word that James was saying. Before James could reply, a group of customers approached the counter. One of them approached James and crossed his arms angrily.
“I want to speak to a manager, right now,” the man said. “And don’t give me any of that crap about no managers being available. I have a serious issue that needs to be dealt with.”
James took a deep breath and put on the most genuine smile he could muster as he turned to face the man. Alexis started to slink away. Luckily for her, she was still in training, and wasn’t required to deal with customers on her own yet.
“Good luck,” she whispered in James’ ear, right before disappearing. Her sentiment sounded sincere, and James felt a little thrill run through him at the proximity of her lips to his ear.
Despite her annoying insistence on acting like an expert about shifters, he had a feeling that he was going to enjoy spending the summer working with Alexis Fletcher.